A grand love, in life and thereafter


My husband came into my life like a sun and showered me with a golden light I had not known before. The moment we met, we recognized each other and without wasting too many precious moments, reunited after a much-too-long hiatus. Of course, I knew when we started that our time together would be too short no matter what: Truthfully, infinity by Theo’s side would still be too short (not that I wouldn’t kvetch from time to time).

By the time Theo and I met, I had been living in India for 17 years, and was working as the India correspondent for Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. I loved my life in India, my work and my play. Besides publishing stories in Yedioth and in magazines around the world, I had a weekly column in one of India’s best newsweeklies. I was doing commentary about Jewish and Israeli issues on Indian TV and about Indian affairs on Israeli TV. I travelled extensively for my stories, but otherwise lived in peace in a small village, my kids romping through the jungle, looking for lizards and snakes. From my windows, coconut trees, rice fields, and ancient cashew groves glowed and glistened in the monsoon rain. Although life, being life, was not perfect, it suited me well in almost every way.

Still, within five months of meeting my husband at a Shabbat dinner on a visit to Los Angeles, I dismantled my life, sold my air conditioner, gave away our books and our cats, quit my job and came to L.A. We were married soon after. Theo said had he been 10 years younger, he might have joined me in India. I would have loved that, and I think he might have as well.

The Bikels in the East Village of Manhattan in July 2013. Photo courtesy of Amy Ginsburg Bikel

Although we often regretted finding each other again so late in Theo’s life, we knew there was a reason it was as it was, that we both needed to experience all that we had beforehand, so that we could properly fit. We spoke about the agreement we now realized we had made together before we were born; our pledge to come back into each other’s lives exactly at the right moment, just when we need each other most. We realized that our life lessons are precisely what made it possible for us to be together in the way it was meant to be. This included all of the lessons that we still had to learn from each other, and from our union.

Some people, especially at the beginning, asked if our age difference, 38 years, bothered me. I answered them that I would have utterly adored my husband had he been 380 years or 3,800 years older than me — what do numbers have to do with any of this? Others asked if I wasn’t afraid of how soon I might lose him. Of course I was afraid; I was afraid so often. Sometimes I was petrified.

But examining the issue closely, I came to realize that we might lose anyone that we love, God forbid, sooner rather than later. We have no idea if we, or anyone else, will be alive by evening. We pretend that seeing our loved ones again at the end of the day or next week is somehow promised to us, even though we know perfectly well that it is not. I decided to choose love over fear, and I needed to keep choosing it with every breath. As time went by, as my husband became increasingly unwell, love over fear became our narrow bridge, our path.

Still, sometimes I have felt downright cranky for having missed most of the fun. What great times Theo had! (And all I got were the anecdotes.) I mean, life on a kibbutz in the time of the chalutzim! A concert before the queen of England at Buckingham Palace! Singing with Reb Shlomo Carlebach at Washington Square Park (and with the Russian gypsies in the Left Bank clubs of Paris)! Backstage at the “Sound of Music”! Limo rides with Eleanor Roosevelt on the John F. Kennedy campaign trail! Marching for civil rights and jail time in Birmingham! The Newport Folk Festival! The 1968 Democratic convention! Prayer books smuggled into the Soviet Union! Surely, I belonged there at his side.

But the truth is, and we both knew it, that by the time I met my husband, all of the life that had already flowed over him and through him like a bubbling stream, like a mighty waterfall, had polished him, removed the imperfections, made him even more beautiful, and I thank HaShem for bringing me to my chatan, my groom, in the time of his sweetest flowering. It is also true that neither of us would easily trade away the full lives we had lived before we met — mostly because of our wonderful sons, but a lot of the rest if it as well.

Many years ago, I studied some cartography — fascinating stuff. What impressed me most was the part about measuring. We were taught that in measuring anything, a shoreline, for example, the question was the scale of measurement one used. Measuring that shoreline by miles yielded one result, finite and crude. Measuring by feet, one was able to take into account the curves and the bends, turning out a longer measurement, so much more exact. Now, imagine measuring that shoreline by millimeters, being able to really account for the most minuscule nooks and crannies. How exquisitely intimate would be the knowledge of that shoreline to the measurer; how close to infinite the measured length.

So Theo and I decided to measure by millimeters and grew our shoreline as close to infinity as we could; and when our millimeters seemed to be running out, we switched to plancks. (I had to Google this, but a planck is the smallest unit of measurement.)

What a nifty trick! And it worked pretty well!

But, it turns out, even if you reduce the unit of measurement to the smallest one and come close to infinity, life is still marked with a start and an end. On July 21, the second bookend of Theodore Bikel’s life was revealed. Now we know not only how it starts but also how it ends. If there are any real regrets, they have to do with the times when by lack of presence, lack of consciousness, we used a plain old, crude yardstick and missed so many of the nooks and crannies that would have lengthened our shoreline and given us so many more real moments of love.

One day, in the woods outside Vienna, where Theo had spent countless joyful hours hiking with his mama and papa before the Anschluss, we made a new pledge: To do our best next time to be born more or less in the same year, or at least in the same decade (give or take), so that we could do the whole thing together side by side. We were sitting in an inn with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, eating the chicken soup with liver dumplings of his kinder yorn (childhood years). His trusty wheelchair sat folded behind us. I was imagining hiking, or at least walking, together through the woods, hugging trees, looking for mushrooms, singing labor songs as he had done as a boy. Theo read my mind. “Next life,” he said, and kissed my nose. “Promise?” I asked, and hid my face in his pashmina shawl. A month later, in an ICU in the Valley, Theo promised me again, and I climbed into his hospital bed, despite the growling nurse, careful of the IV and oxygen lines. I am only 53, so this promise might mean lots of extra time for Theo to hang out in Gan Eden regaling all the inhabitants with music and laughter, as all who knew him know he will.

The truth is that since I lost my husband, I feel lost myself, alone under a dark night sky, tracing that shoreline with my bare toes, an oil lamp in my hand. Maybe I will find something we had overlooked before, something new to measure. Maybe it will ease this constant ache. Mostly, I find myself searching the very last stretch, the millimeters of that last night, the plancks of the last moments, searching, searching. “What are you searching for?” I ask myself. (“Be peaceful,” my husband whispers.) Maybe I think that if I look hard enough, finely enough, between the seconds and the nanoseconds, I will find the secret doorway, the crack in time and space through which I could bring him back to me, or travel back to him. These days, I sometimes fear that our pledges about next time were nothing but folly, and that I must accept that death might very well be, simply, the end. Other times, I feel him just on the other side of an invisible membrane, the Holy Mechitza, reaching for me as I reach for him. The mechitza remains unbroken. Maybe inter-dimensional communication will never be ours to learn. Maybe it is my faith I am searching for in the cold sand along the shore.

Theo was so brave in the last months of his life, when living in his body became quite difficult. What I mean by brave is that he continued to be exactly who he is in the given moment, without shame, without hiding. If he needed help, he asked for it. If he felt afraid, he said so. If he needed to moan and groan, he did. I actually asked him to moan and groan a little less, because of the effect this had on my own state of mind, but I now wish I could give him retroactive permission to moan and groan all he wanted. Theo was always himself. He never wanted to be anyone else.

This reminds me of the famous talmudic story about Reb Zusha. Reb Zusha, a perfect tzadik and great Chassidic master, was on his deathbed, crying his heart out. His devoted students were mortified, and begged him to tell them what was wrong. “I’m afraid of meeting God,” he told them. “How could this be?” his students exclaimed. “You are almost as wise as Moses, and you are as kind as Abraham!”

To which Reb Zusha replied, “But God is not going to ask me ‘Why were you not wise like Moses and kind as Abraham?’ He is going to ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not more like Zusha?’ ” My point is that there is absolutely no danger that God, nor anyone else in heaven, is now asking Theo why he wasn’t more like Theo.

Theo became so gentle and peaceful in his last days that he was almost like a lake, a pond, reflecting back whatever was in view. This was a very forgiving mirror, easy to see yourself as beautiful when peering into it. He really and truly only wanted everyone to be happy, to be at peace, to enjoy as much as they could, to forgive each other, to quit the blame game, to be kind to one another. That is all he wanted — in the very last days he didn’t even want food or even drink, but kindness, gentleness and peace he never lost his taste for.

And then it was time, and just like that, he was gone. Theo’s shoreline had reached its end, and he was off to meet his parents and other beloveds he’d lost over the years. At 91, there are, of course, so many who have gone before him, and Theo missed them dearly. Although not religious or mystical by nature, Theo assumed he would be with them in some unfathomable yet real way after leaving his body. Not that Theo wanted to go — he did not want to go at all; he wanted to stay with me, enjoying our love (and the love among his brothers and his sisters all over this land). He would have liked to stay here forever, if possible. He liked it here, and had lived, thank God, an unusually happy and fulfilling life. But his body, being mortal, could not house this magnificent spirit any longer, and now my darling husband, our darling, inimitable Theo Bikel, is free to fill the cosmos with his joy, his generosity of spirit, his kindness.

The day before he died, he woke up, looked up at me and said: “Love is the poetry of life.” I’ve had many teachers, some of them Himalayan masters from the most exalted of dynasties. Let me tell you, they ain’t seen anything the likes of Theodore Bikel, Grand Master of the poetry of life. 

Theo, I will love you till the end of time. 

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